This month marks the return to a regular question-and-answer column format in the manner that Kate Fordham and I authored this column since its inception in December of 1996. Periodically, I will run special features such as last month's column on drug abuse in the young gay male community, but I have received numerous reader e-mails requesting that I focus most of the columns on reader questions. Certainly, this is an important service of the column. As Kate has stated before, queer youth don't have that many sources for accurate and frank information on sexual health and not all queer youth are aware of what resources DO exist in their own communities or at the national and international level. At some point (and soon, I hope), I plan to compile a comprehensive listing of hotlines, resource centers, websites, and other places where queer youth may turn for non-judgmental and candid health information. This sort of networking is vital to our extended community and it's something that Oasis, as a magazine and a website, is better situated to facilitate than many other gay-oriented organizations. I should add, too, that when readers e-mail me with questions about how they can obtain non-judgmental health care in their own localities, I always try to find out for them what resources exist in their areas, though in some places few such resources are available. Aside from Oasis, XY Magazine has been very good at publishing listings of local-level resource centers for gay youth and P-FLAG is another great source of this sort of information.
Okay, the first question this month is an interesting and important one, and I have tried to give a detailed and varied response, because this question brings up several points that really need to be considered by all of us who are sexual active young gay males:
I'm sorry Kate's gone, but hope that you can help me with this. How do you deal with oral sex and condoms? Should you use them always or not? How safe is it to not use them? What if you're having sex with a couple different guys? I am, and I don't know if oral sex is something to worry about because a lot of people have said not to worry [but] I do anyway. I want to do whatever's safest.
Patrick, age 17
We've written quite a bit about oral sex in the past, but it certainly doesn't hurt to address it once more because like you suggest, Patrick, it's a topic that is controversial and there is quite a lot of conflicting information about the real dangers of oral sex in terms of sexually transmitted diseases. First, let me say this: the safest forms of sex always involves a barrier of some sort, if not a condom, then some other means of preventing interchange of bodily fluids. Anal sex and vaginal sex pose the highest risk in terms of the possible transmission of a microscopic pathogen (such as HIV), but such transmission is possible via oral sex, too. The chance of transmission through oral sex is increased (to the person who is sucking) if you have sores of any sort in your mouth, chronic gingivitis, or periodontitis. Even small cuts or abrasions in the mouth can greatly encourage the transmission of microbes because they allow a direct path for the microbe to get into the bloodstream. In theory, if the penis has sores or cuts on it, the same would apply, although the real risk in oral sex seems to be for the person who's mouth is involved.
Some researchers have questioned whether or not pre-ejaculate (pre-cum) may actually have a higher concentration of HIV virions in it than ejaculated semen (cum) does; if it is true that pre-ejaculate does have a higher concentration, it would mean that even if a partner pulls out before cumming, there could still be a serious risk of transmittal of HIV. Alison Jane Quayle, Ph.D., a biochemist at Harvard University, has studied this question in depth and reported in a medical journal article in 1994 that she and her fellow researchers "... have found cells that contain HIV in pre-ejaculate but we have never cultured these cells and so do not know whether the virus in these cells is infectious. It is, however, potentially infectious." So what Dr. Quayle is essentially saying is that transmission of HIV via pre-cum is possible. In Quayle's 1994 article, she further questions the real risk of acquiring HIV through oral sex in general, saying that there is not enough scientific data to determine just how high such a risk is nor are there many definite cases of someone becoming infected with AIDS where it can be traced directly to oral sex. Although that article was published over five years ago, little has really changed and scientists are still not sure of how high the rate of transmission via oral sex may be, although there is the potential for such transmission. Of that much we are sure.
Kate communicated with Dr. Quayle back in early 1998 when she (Kate) wrote a lengthy column on HIV/AIDS and oral sex. From what I remember from that column and from Kate's notes on the matter, Dr. Quayle urged Kate to persuade her readers to treat oral sex as a viable route of transmission of HIV and to consider oral sex without a condom as quite risky. Just because we are not able to quantify the amount of risk involved dose not make that any risk lower. With that much said, I realize that condoms are not necessarily the best-tasting things around and that they're not all that pleasant to have in your mouth; there are, thankfully, flavored condoms and for that matter, condoms that are not all that, uhh... thick and rubber-like. Latex condoms provide the best means of protection for safer oral sex, although they can tear and rupture and cannot be considered one hundred percent effective. Despite this, we should all use them if we are having oral sex with someone whom we don't have a long-established history with because until we know more about the real biological risks involved in oral sex, we must be careful.
What is your opinion of a kid in high school dating a kid in college, who is quite a bit older? Is it unrealistic to try to have a relationship like this?
Trey, age not given
Trey, this sort of thing is a really tough area to address, although that should not prevent or deter me or anyone else from considering it seriously. A lot of people have a lot of very different opinions on the subject of intergenerational male love and, even when it is not truly "intergenerational", of an older guy and younger guy dating. Personally, I have to agree with Camille Paglia's now-famous remark on the matter; to paraphrase Dr. Paglia, if two people are in love and want a relationship and both understand the repercussions of such a relationship and consent to it willingly, why should society or the juridical system interfere? Paglia also suggested that the age of consent be lowered to fourteen, a point that I am not sure I can agree with as while some fourteen-year-olds may have the emotional and physical maturity to deal with a romantic (and possibly sexual) relationship, many have not at that stage of their lives developed such skills. I do however feel that such a fine line divides those who are college aged from those who are in high school that it is silly to uniformly say that college students and high school students cannot date, whether we're talking about gay or straight kids. When dating someone older than yourself, someone with perhaps considerably more experience, it is always a good idea to be prudent about the relationship and be cautious in your approach to things, including of course, sexual things.
Age of consent varies by state and varies, strongly enough, between specific laws applying to heterosexual relations and those applying to homosexual ones. This is true in nations other than the United States, too. There is little uniformity to these laws and few really seem to make sense. Perhaps even more important in a social context than the laws at hand, however, is the high degree of societal stigma placed on relationships between people in high school and those who have graduated and gone on to do other things. Of course, if such a relationship is simply the continuation of a relationship that started in high school (and one person graduated prior to the other) most people seem to have little to complain about whereas in a situation where a person in college seeks out a boyfriend/girlfriend in high school, most people tend to see such activity as wrong and deviant. Merge that view with the fact that many still see homosexuality as abnormal to a degree, and you have a situation where a perfectly good and beneficial relationship may be socially viewed as something abhorrent. Of course, the age of both people involved has an impact on the way others see the relationship: if someone who was nineteen and in college was to date a seventeen year-old who was in high school, I suspect it would be better received than if someone my age (twenty-five) was to date a fifteen year-old. In the latter case, the ten year difference is indeed a large gap, but I don't think that is reason in itself to condemn all relationships that contain such a difference in age.
Relationships are something than have to be examined on an individual basis and I don't believe that uniformity can really be applied at all.
I have no doubt that there have been many high school-aged gay youth who have had mutually gratifying relationships with older men (and the same may well be true with lesbians), but society still sees such relationships as taboo. Society sees intergenerational relationship between heterosexuals as nearly as forbidden, as well. The question that each individual must asked himself/herself is whether or not the relationship is going to be something he/she can manage and that will be safe and comfortable. If you have a lot of trepidation and hesitation about a relationship, then chances are that it may not be a wise idea to pursue it. Whether or not you feel the consent laws of your state are fair or not, bear in mind that they are indeed the law and that you could be involved (and your older partner could be harshly prosecuted) in a statutory rape case even in a mutually consensual relationship. As I said before, this is a very touchy issue on which uniform and broad judgments cannot be made. Trey, you or any other reader interested in the philosophical and social issues revolving around your question might want to read the following article:
Mirkin, Harris: "The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality, and Pedophilia" Journal of Homosexuality, 37; 2, 1999
Also, this is an issue that I am keenly interested in and have been researching myself; I hope in the next six months or so to publish some of my theoretical work on intergenerational love and sexual relations in an academic journal. Additionally, I plan to write an extensive article for Oasis about this subject and some of my own theories regarding it.
Please send your questions regarding sexuality, safer sex, health concerns, and dynamics of relationships to Mike at: MCWalker@hotmail.com
MICHAEL WALKER is the Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine and has been a regular contributor to Oasis since December of 1996. He also has published theoretical and research articles as well as poetry and fiction in other academic and popular journals and magazines. In addition to this column, he reviews books for Oasis and writes editorial articles. His primary research interests include: gay youth and AIDS prevention, mental health of gay youth, social agency and cultural acceptance of gay adolescents, body image and body perception, the arts and homosexuality, and sociolegal issues affecting gay youth.